From the Bataan Death March to the barbershop quartet.
Thursday, February 9, 2006
831>>TALES FROM THE AREA CODE
Ninety-one-year old Ted Pflueger has a passion for positive thinking. Surviving a war can have a way of doing that.
In spring of 1942 Pflueger was a starved POW on the brink of death. Today he’s a resident of Pacific Grove and a Cypressaire barb ershop chorus singer who’ll help deliver harmonized valentines this Monday and Tuesday. In both incarnations, he’s been guided by a powerful drive to make things better for others.
On April 9, 1942, American soldiers stationed on Bataan, a small island north of the Philippines, surrendered to the Japanese. They were out of ammunition and very low on food.
Pflueger, an officer in the Army’s corps of engineering, remembers that day clearly. He says Japanese interrogators were “miffed” that he couldn’t provide information about a secret tunnel linking strategic cities that didn’t exist.
“They gave me what we called ‘the water cure,’” he says, “tying my hands behind my back and forcing water up my nose, with a hose, to drown me.
“I made my mind up at that time that I would die. They were trying to kill me anyway. I had seen them kill another fella previously for no reason at all except the man wanted to try out his sword. So I took a big whiff [of water] and passed out. They dumped me behind a big table.”
Pflueger says he woke up the next morning under a tall pile of dead bodies. He reasons that the weight of the corpses is what “squished the water out” of his lungs. He crawled out, recognized some men from his company in a line, and joined them. “That’s when the march started,” he says.
The Bataan Death March is one of the most famously nasty chapters of a famously nasty war. In the days after 70,000 hungry and ill-equipped Filipino and US soldiers formally surrendered to the Japanese, they were forced to march about 70 miles north to a prison camp. They were given no food or water, and those who fell behind were executed by bullet, bayonet or beheading.
Pflueger says before they even began to walk, he and the other prisoners had already gone months on reduced rations and “eating what you could find—monkeys and lizards and wild chicken and wild boar” as a result of Japan’s successful embargo on the island. So they were already weak as they started “down a road lined with dead bodies.”
“People would drop from exhaustion,” he recalls. “The only time to get water was at night.” It was then, he says, in barbed wire-rimmed fields, that the thousands of prisoners would line up to get what they could from a single spigot. They got little sleep.
Problems persisted at the prison camp—minimal food and appalling conditions. Yet Pflueger says the “major problem” for most people wasn’t the treatment, it was their mindset. “Some just sat down and died because of their misery,” he says. Not Pflueger—he says he survived by staying positive. “I was busy looking after other people, keeping their spirits up, keeping them going, keeping them alive.”
In the face of so much dying, Pflueger found a powerful lesson about life. “It was a kind of psychology class,” he says. “We learned which people were the right thinkers: the people who thought positively, who don’t dwell on what could happen, but what they can make happen...it was a million dollar lesson.
“But I wouldn’t take a million dollars to do it again.”
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Pflueger says that today—more than six decades since his prisoner transport bound for Japan was sunk by US submarines and he was rescued—he re-experiences that lesson regularly.
For starters, it happens every time he meets with his fellow Monterey Peninsula Cypressaires, a distinguished local barbershop chorus group that recently celebrated 50 years of existence. “These people that are singers,” he says, “they’re the kind of positive people who want to do things for others.”
The Cypressaires will deliver singing valentines on Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 13-14. Their a cappella tribute to love lasts two songs and comes accompanied by a rose and a personalized card. Part of the proceeds go to local youth music.
Cypressaire Allan Mello is enthusiastic about the annual event. “It’s so fun seeing people light up,” he says. “People feel emotional—their sweetheart sent over a live Valentine!”
Pflueger says the Cypressaires honor the same spirit that helped keep him alive. “They’re interested in making things happen,” he says, “like making people happy on Valentine’s Day.”
To send your sweetheart a singing Valentine call 659-2526 or visit singingvalentinesmonterey.org.